My 2019 AGU talks

AGU is a conference held in December each year, about a week before Christmas. AGU stands for American Geophysical Union. It’s more interesting than it sounds, promise! Usually it’s held in San Francisco. I’ve been a couple of time.

This past December, I had three talks at AGU. Two were invited. I felt very special.

To get to AGU, I first took the train from Houston to Los Angeles. It was a very nice train — and it didn’t take so long — and look at all the pretty things I saw along the way.

Then from Los Angeles, I took mostly an overnight bus north. Overnight so I wouldn’t waste a day traveling. The bus literally does run all night long, and at long last, just after sunrise (it was winter, so the sunrise was kind of late), we arrived in San Francisco. I stayed for a week, gave my 3 talks, and it was great.

My talks were all about my Animations with Kids program. For the second talk, I got to show everyone how I teach the kids 3D animation.

My protoplanetary disk in Blender3D

A protoplanetary disk is, in my opinion, a stupid word that means something very sweet … it just means a solar system in its infancy, when it’s still a baby, still developing. But instead of just calling it a “baby solar system” or, to be more regal, an “infant solar system”, they had to christen it with an ugly, long, totally unnecessary name. It makes it sound like a super foreign, enormously complex idea: what else could a protoplanetary disk be, if not something that you can only understand if you spend many years getting a PhD? Really, it’s a pretty straightforward, though! It’s an infant solar system. But the people getting their PhDs in this have to pretend that their research is sooooo complicated and would go over all your heads, and therefore … we’re stuck with a “protoplanetary disk”.

I should make one more note: I said a protoplanetary disk is “sweet”. It’s sweet because it’s a baby in a sense. But they’re not actually all that sweet. They’re like violent places full of collisions.

Any case, I made one in Blender 3D. This right here was the image I tried to mimic. And this is what mine ended up looking like:

protoplanetary disk0062

Isn’t it nice??!! You can see it spinning in animated form here.

The spinning might be a little fast.

I made this 3D model on my own. I mean, there’s not tutorial out there titled, “How to build a protoplanetary disk in Blender”. So I had to skulk around in several different tutorials and get tips from each to figure out how I was going to do this. One of the few times I’ve completely improvised my Blender work when it comes to a more complicated object. Makes me proud when I experiment and do this. One tutorial in particular that got me started on some ideas was this one on making clouds.

Once I got the basic shape, this is what it looked like:

protoplanetary draft 1

It’s got the concentric circles, but it’s a bit too solid.

So I changed the material a bit, tried to make it transparent, and …

protoplanetary draft 2

This made the disk look a little more insubstantial, which is what I wanted. On the other hand, it made it look like there was a stump in the middle. There was actually no stump there, but this particular material, combined with the light source, produced the aspect of one.

So I finally just cut out some of the vertices in the center of the disk. And also, I changed the way I was setting up the light source. At first, I had set up a sun lamp right over the disk, and let it shine down onto the center. But once I carved out the hole in the disk, I got rid of the sun lamp; added an icosphere in the gap left by the hole; gave it an emission shader; and then amped up the strength a whole bunch.

So again, it ended up looking like this:

protoplanetary disk0062
Protoplanetary disk built in Blender 3D.

This is how I got there:


First, this is what the model looks like in Blender: you can see both the disk and the “sun” in the center.

protoplanetary model


The disk is just a plane, extruded upwards a bit, with several modifiers on it. Here you see all of them:

protoplanetary modifiers

I added a subsurface modifier between all the others not because I knew what I was doing, but because I saw someone do that in a tutorial. So it seemed like an impressive thing to do.

Here’s what the parameters of the wave modifier look like:

protoplanetary wave

Here is the Displace modifier parameters, along with the linked texture:

And finally the Simple deform modifier. This one was super fun! I tried out the Bend, Twist, Taper, and Stretch options, each in its turn, and it was so cool to see the results.

protoplanetary simple deform


Like I said, I added an icosphere to put in the middle of the disk, and then this is the material I assigned it. Simple and straightforward: an emission shader, a yellow color, and a high strength of 100. I deleted all the other lights.

protoplanetary lighting

Disk material

The material to color the disk did not end up so complicated at all. Here are the nodes:

protoplanetary material

World material

For the world material, I used a background image:

protoplanetary world material

The background image I used is located in the description provided for this YouTube tutorial. That particular YouTube tutorial is what I used to make the first animation in this Twitter thread.

Animate the disk

To make the disk spin, there’s two things you need to do.

  1. First, go to the wave modifier and make sure the speed is set to 0. Otherwise, the disk will spin all by itself, and no matter if I turned the speed up or down, it was rotating way too fast.
  2. Now you can manually animate the disk by adding keyframes. Save the position at the beginning of the animation, and then go forwards on the timeline, spin the disk however much you want (press R-shift-z; the shift-z will make sure the “R” for rotate doesn’t cause the disk to wobble up and down), and then keyframe the new position.

And that’s it! My approach to making a protoplanetary disk in Blender.

Scicomm made polished, part 3

I finished a new animated Twitter thread for work. This one is on planet collisions. Woah!

You can see it here. It’s nine tweets in all.

I wrote about getting feedback on  my animated Twitter threads earlier. I was sad because I was told about how bad and unpolished my work was.

Well, after all my whining and complaining, I did the teacher’s pet, good-girl act of “let me learn from my mistakes” and “take the feedback to heart”. I decided to act all mature and pretend I was happy to be told I sucked. While making the new Twitter thread on planet collisions, I paid attention to the backgrounds and colors I was using. I worked on it for a month, and tweeted it out last Thursday. It was in fact my last act at work before becoming a Coronavirus refugee.

protoplanetary disk0062
This is supposed to represent a solar system in its infancy.

Then I sent this new thread to one of the people who had given me feedback. What do you think now? And in a very cutesy, inspiring turn of events (thankfully), I was told: this looks great! Big improvement! Nice job!

Isn’t that nice?

Further: that the colors and similarities in style between the different animations makes it much more evident that they all go together. That they have a relationship to each other through the color choices or the dark background.

lava flow0071
Lava flow.

You know what, though, I don’t know that I can fully appreciate my own work. I, for example, thought there should be something distinctively consistent in the background for each animation — something I wasn’t able to ensure. But upon receiving my feedback, that was when it first dawned on me that just the simple consistency of a dark background in each animation was enough — nothing fancier than that. So I still have a lot to learn, but it’s definitely nice to receive praise, and I think if I iterate this cycle of experimentation on my part, and feedback from others, I learn little nuggets of insight at a time.

As always, I use Blender3D to make these animations.

Construct3D: Making animations with real-life puppets

I saw a really cool talk the other day. It was the keynote on the opening night of the Construct3D conference. The speaker was Brian McLean from a movie company called Laika. They are in Portland, Oregon.

Now, I’d never heard of that company before, but they’ve won some Oscars, and been nominated for more. So I got to meet and talk to a person who has an Oscar. Pretty cool.

This company makes stop-motion animation. I didn’t know what this was until when I saw “Chicken Run”, the movie. Actually, I watched the movie a few times, and later on someone told me it was made through stop-motion animation, and explained what that meant. That you’re not creating characters on a computer program. But instead you have actual little clay figures. And you can move and bend them. And every time in the movie when anything moves at all, it means that they stopped the camera, had someone lean into the hand-made scenery where all the characters are perched, and move the characters’ hand or eyebrow or a tree branch by hand.

This process sounded so spine-chillingly and nerve-upendingly time-consuming and long that at first I was sure I had misheard, but that’s exactly how it works!

Any case, I have never watched any of the 5 films that Laika has made, but I’ve heard of some of them at least. The one I had heard of was Coraline. Now that I’ve met one of the people involved in making them, I’m going to try to watch it.

With Laika, they don’t make their little character puppets using clay or ceramics. Instead, they 3D print their characters — at least, they 3D print their characters’ faces. And since at every moment in a movie when a character is on camera they want the character’s face to have an expression perfectly suited for that moment, they end up printing tens of thousands of faces. And then these faces can be snapped onto the character’s head.

Indeed, this takes a long time! The speaker told us it takes them 4 to 5 years to make a movie. But, it’s apparently not as expensive as 3D computer animation. He said that it cost Pixar something like $150 million to make Toy Story, while LAIKA spent $60 million on their last movie, The Missing Link. I’d like to watch that one, too.

But, then when it comes time to release the movies in the theatre, not a lot of people go watch them. I know the feeling! So they don’t actually make all their money back. Instead, they are bankrolled by the son of the founder or head of Nike!

The speaker had brought some of the actual movie puppets with him … and some of the snappable, 3D printed faces. It was super cool.

Real puppets and 3D-printed faces from LAIKA
Brian McLean from LAIKA and his puppets

Scicomm made polished, part 2

I was bemoaning the apparent lack of polish in my science animations and not quite understanding all the criticisms, but now it’s a few days later, and something has dawned on me.

I remember now reading people’s blogs, and them saying all all their photos are put through pre-sets in Lightroom. Meaning every photo gets a “finish” on it, or something, and it’s the exact same finish for each photo, and that finish will mute the colors all in the same way; or get the brightness of the photo to look the same; or maybe some other stuff, too. So then when you see photos from that person all together, they all have that same sheen to them, so you kind of can tell they came from the same place.

Honestly, does this not also make it boring? So every photo kind of looks the same, one to the next. But if you don’t do this, then your photos look incoherent?

Well, I’m going to try something: for my next animated Twitter thread, I will choose a color palette carefully and stick to those colors throughout the whole thread. And I’ll see if that helps with the “polish” and the “coherence.”

Scicomm on Halloween

I made this short little video for work way back, just in time for Halloween:

I spent the week leading up to Halloween feverishly focused on it, wanting to get it done in time. It’s haunted house-themed, and it describes the premise of CLEVER Planets research in a Halloween-flavored nutshell.

Unfortunately, as you can see, it didn’t really get a lot of views or re-tweets or anything. It felt like a bummer, because I spent a lot of time on it; but the pay-off was all limited to one day (unless I tweet it again next year); and so it felt like it was a waste of time.

I had been planning to make a model of Olaf the snowman from Frozen and use him for a winter-themed animation about CLEVER Planets research … but for now, I have decided to tread carefully around seasonal themes and avoid them.


The YouTube sleeper

I think a “sleeper” is a movie that no one thinks is going to do that well, and then it takes over the box office.

My YouTube videos are like that, if you chop off the “takes over” part. My videos are like David and Goliath, but David loses.

Any case, I think people are interested in how videos gain popularity on YouTube, so let me throw in what I know, from the perspective of running a very over-looked channel.

I made a movie called: Ariana Grande singing about climate change.

I think it’s quite nice, you know … I think I used some good and steady animation techniques in it overall. It’s clear and to the point.

Well, I posted it in November 2017, and for almost its entire life, it had 87 views. It got those views early on, I honestly don’t know how. And then it just stayed at 87 views.

Then some time, last April or May, it all of a sudden shot up (yes, for me, this counts as shooting up) to 95, and then 99, and then past 100. I was really surprised. I didn’t do anything at all to bring this feat about. I don’t know if someone found the video, randomly, and then shared it on Facebook or something. Or if it all of a sudden became a “suggested video” on the side column of another YouTube video.

Well, when I saw it on the move like that, I thought, wow! A video of mine is going to ‘make it’! I kept checking every day to see if the view count was increasing (things were very slow at work) and it was increasing, so I thought: my video (and I) are invincible now! I thought people must be sharing it excitedly across all their platforms! Pretty soon, it approached 187 views!

Not so fast. The view count was still going up, but by less and less. I finally decided to get to the bottom of things and checked the official YouTube stats. Compared to the leaps and bounds I’d thought the video was increasing by, the reality was much more tame. Yeah, it had increased by 100 views, but there wasn’t really a big burst anywhere. By the stats, it went up by about 15 views suddenly in one day, and that was how it started; then maybe 10 the next; then bounced around with 3-4 extra views a day for the next few weeks, till that dwindled to 1-2 views a day. My invincibility wasn’t so invincible after all. I realized that there was actually no infinite momentum; the 15+ views must have been a fluke, and now I was going to have to settle for 1-2 views until it dropped back to zero.

These days it’s kind of like stop-and-go traffic. The view count doesn’t move at all some days. Some days it gets 4 views. It’s at 301 today. Which is pretty extraordinary for me. Everything else grows by 10 views in an entire year. This is the first of my animations to grow by over 200 views within the space of about 4 months. No idea where it will go from here.


Bad audio, all the time

I usually use my trusty laptop to record kids’ voices for animations. It usually works out really well, and picks up the kids’ voices even when they’re speaking softly.

But I ran into a problem this time around at the summer camp. There was a super annoying buzzing sound in the hall where I started animating. It came from the light fixture. I had already recorded the voices of about 5 kids before I noticed it. We migrated then into the empty room next door, but the buzzing followed us, and I didn’t exactly want to close the door, because it’s not a super good idea for an adult to be alone with the child. So I kept the door cracked.

I didn’t finish recording all the kids that day, and when I went back later, I had an action plan: I decided to record the leftover kids outside. It was nice and quiet out there! I went home and listened to all the recordings, and the outdoors recordings definitely won the day.

So, when it came time to do the recordings for the second film, I strolled outside with each kid, out the front door of the church where the summer camp is held, off to the side a bit where there’s a nice slab of pavement to sit on past which our feet dangled into bright green grass, and warm summer sun all around us. And I felt very fresh and pleased that I was both getting the project done, and getting some outside time.

Sadly, though, it did not turn out for the best. The mosquitoes must have been out in full force that day, just to spite me, I suppose. I heard them buzzing about but I thought — the other day, we recorded outside and it sounded just fine. Surely it’s not possible for mosquitoes to vary how loud they’re being from day to day? Well, apparently it is possible. I found that out later. I had, in good, responsible time, done the necessary animation edits to stitch the kids’ work together. I had it all completed so that there wasn’t a crunch and flurry of work necessary the day before the family viewing party. Instead, though, I had left all the audio wrestling for the last day. I had been at a workshop a few weeks ago where they told us: Guess what! If your audio has a weird buzzing noise, it’s easy to fix it! Just load it into this program [one of the Adobe Creative Suites] and you click the button that says ‘reduce buzz’ or ‘reduce background’ or something like that.

Well. First of all, it is not that simple, between having to load the files, and do some extra clicking about. And second, and saddest, it didn’t really do a good job 😦 I could still hear that stupid buzz from the light fixture, and the mosquitoes. And in fact, the mosquitoes were the hardest to overcome, I guess because the stupid light fixture buzz was a steady and narrow sound, while the mosquitoes blared their song up and down the octaves and blazed forth and dove down. Any case, so the sound is not that good in these two movies, even though it took me forever to try to fix them. And in fact after the family viewing party, and before uploading to YouTube, I spent like a day trying to further fix up the audio. I uploaded and then removed, and then re-uploaded the movies like three times, adjusting the sound each time. And before that, I had rendered the movies about 5 times already, adjusting the sound and volume in between.

I was pretty sad to think that I had the animated parts mostly ready to go, and here was the audio to trip me up.

And here are the movies: “A bird story” is the one where the weird buzzing was in the background. “A lesson on nurdles” was the one which was recorded a lot outside.

Animations of geology

In the last few weeks, I made one of the coolest things I ever made in Blender: these planetary marbles rolling towards each other while swirling inside:

And before that, I made a volcano and a glacier.

I hope I’ll be able to use these in something creative.

Making people in Blender 3D

My first attempts at making people in Blender looked like this: a came up with a baby with a detachable head.


She lost one of her cheeks, and she had no hands and non-moving arms. However, she’s still pretty cute, isn’t she?

Then I moved on to these teenagers:

Blender first peopleBlender first people

They’re pretty cute, too!

I then explored the world of stick figures:

Blender people stick figures

And finally, I tried making fully fleshed creatures. This is what I came up with:

Blender scary people

Some people think they look very scary. But you know what? Even though they don’t have fingers, they are still able to drink their hot tea.

I gave up on making people for a few years after that, but finally, I thought I’d try again and I came up with …

Blender people Agnes

Isn’t she absolutely lovely? I couldn’t believe my eyes when she was done. Her name is Agnes.

And the coolest part I’ve discovered, is that I just have to make a few tweaks to the face – nothing extreme at all – and I’ll come up with a whole new person. Like Eve coming from Adam’s rib, or however it goes.

So I tweaked Agnes’ cheeks, eyes, and hair just a bit, and I got Ebba:

Blender people thumbs up

A big give-away is the hair on the forehead – same pattern, though Ebba’s strands are longer. Ebba and Agnes are friends, here you see them standing together.

Here Agnes and Ebba look at a rose:

Blender people rose

Yes, they have fingers but no toes.

Then I made a girl with brown hair, a blue skirt, and a ribbon in her hair called Margaret. Margaret comes from Agnes. Her lips are fuller and nose is narrower, but they look quite a bit alike.

Blender people Madicken

And from her, I made a girl called Lisa. Notice the bangs and actually the whole hair style, down to the ribbon, is the same. Here Lisa is reading with a small girl called Elizabeth (the one in the polka-dot dress). I don’t actually remember who Elizabeth’s “parent” model was. It was probably Agnes, my original.


And I made a lady called Deedra (in the blue hijab):

Blender people in the desert

Here you see Agnes, Elizabeth, Lisa, Ebba, and Deedra all standing together in “Ariana Grande singing about climate change.” No, none of them were meant to have demon eyes.

And here you see a progression of how one character “gives birth” into another:

Blender people progression

On the left, you see Snow-White. Well, Snow-White without black hair. I made her out of Margaret. Notice they have the same skin color, they have the exact same bangs. Snow-White’s mouth is a bit more pouty, maybe. And maybe her cheeks are fuller. Of course, the clothes are also different.

From Snow-White, I made the Hawaiian tree snail scientist who features in “The Desperate Tale of the Last Tree Snail.”  The fringe on the forehead is again a give-away. I changed the features quite a bit, but honestly, it’s not hard. You play just a tiny bit and get someone entirely new.

And finally, I took the tree snail scientist and made the mom that’s in “The grass is not trash.” I removed the bangs and maybe her eyes are a tad bigger.

I’m going to have a whole village soon enough!

blender people photo shoot